A horn fanfare from the pit alerts as a bevy of happy nymphs return from a successful hunt, carrying a large beast slung on two poles. Bringing up the rear in her short white tunic and silver helmet, and carrying her trusty bow and sheath of arrows, is Sylvia the huntress, who takes time for a few spotlit poses before descending the bridge to the grove below. There, with her eight attendants, she shows in her first solo of sharply honed jetés and strong balances, that she is no mere pretty deity figure, but a strong Amazonian woman, powerful and commanding.

Marianela Núñez (Sylvia) © ROH | Alice Pennefather
Marianela Núñez (Sylvia)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

The original ballet, Sylvia, ou La nymphe de Diane was created in France for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1876 by Louis Mérante to music by Leo Delibes. Here in the UK in 1952, Sir Frederick Ashton created his own version as a showcase for the talents of Margot Fonteyn and Michael Soames, but this complete three act work remained unseen for many decades. Then, as part of the 2004 celebrations dedicated to Ashton’s centenary, the ballet was revived by Christopher Newton, and the result is a stirring action-packed entertainment. It has little narrative – Ashton’s own description of it was: “Boy loves girl, girl captured by bad man, girl restored to boy by god”. And that’s about it, though during and around those moments, there is plenty to admire and there’s dancing galore, all to Delibes’ wonderful music, which must be one of the most recognisable and enthralling ballet scores. It ranges from exhilarating brass and woodwind flourishes to the soft, delicate pizzicato solo that Sylvia dances on pointe, and was played forcefully and sensitively by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Simon Hewett.

The stage overflows throughout with dryads, frolicking naiads, a nasty huntsman, a near-naked Eros (who has to stand as a statue for most of the first act), and even two goats – one pink, one blue, of course. Ashton’s genius offers a smorgasbord of styles from the start, with a flimsy, light-footed fairy reverie, then bucolic peasant dances with wheelbarrows, rakes and toy lambs; a comic, toes-flexed dance for two slaves, and frisky capers for the little goats. Finally, in Act 3 we are treated to full classical purity in what must be one of the most beautiful pas de deux created. It’s creamy seamless romantic movements leave us wanting more.

Marianela Núñez (Sylvia) © ROH | Alice Pennefather
Marianela Núñez (Sylvia)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

As Sylvia, Royal Ballet principal, Marianela Núñez was in her element. Confidently and convincingly she presented the incarnation of that mythical goddess, while her technical virtuosity as a ballerina encapsulated the various styles of dance that Sylvia performs as the story develops. Núñez luxuriated in her many wonderful solos where her lightness, delicacy, cheerfulness and rock solid technique – all wrapped in great stamina – made her a delight to watch.

Though she has sworn a vow of chastity at Diana’s command, Sylvia does eventually fall in love with a mortal: Aminta, a role that well suits the talents of Vadim Muntagirov. The young Russian epitomises the eloquence and purity of his early schooling. Everything he does is perfectly placed. He leaps like a shooting star traversing space to land softly in deep pliés. There is never any boastful attitude; he dances because it is as natural as breathing to him. And the effect he leaves is one of pure pleasure. He partners well and Núñez must have felt 100% safe in his care, especially since there are some mighty complicated lifts in Ashton’s choreography.

Vadim Muntagirov (Aminta) and Thiago Soares (Orion) © ROH | Alice Pennefather
Vadim Muntagirov (Aminta) and Thiago Soares (Orion)
© ROH | Alice Pennefather

Thiago Soares seems to have become the bad man of ballet these days with yet another villainous role, but it has to be said he makes a very convincing baddie. As Orion the Evil Hunter, he fills his character with heinous personality, skulking stealthily as he makes his plans to kidnap Sylvia, take her to his lair and then forcefully bend her to his evil ways. Powerfully built, Soares’ Orion propelled himself into the air with super god-like force, all the while watching the object of his desire like a cat after a mouse, waiting for the exact moment to pounce. He too is an excellent careful partner.

Valentino Zucchetti, as Eros, the god of love, was rewarded for standing stock still so nobly at the gate of Diana’s temple for the first 20 minutes. He was funny as the cloaked figure who resurrects the arrow-struck Aminta, and in the last act, he was able to show off some impressive leaps in his solo.

The whole company danced with gusto and enjoyment, qualities that reached out to the audience too. Sylvia is certainly an important historical ballet in the repertoire of The Royal Ballet and its return is been warmly welcomed.